INTERVIEW: What does it take to be a bestselling novelist? Barbara Taylor Bradford explains

Want to be a bestselling novelist? Barbara Taylor Bradford tells Danuta Kean what it takes.
Barbara Taylor Bradford is a tonic: a tonic for writers jaded by capricious publishers whose loyalty to authors’ careers is barely longer than a supermarket promotion. She is also a lesson to all that hard work is as essential to a long career as a passion about writing. At 77 there is no slacking off for BTB. Thirty-one years after her blockbuster début A Woman of Substance appeared, she has just published her 26th novel, Playing the Game, backed by a publicity schedule that would daunt far younger writers.
Given her backlist has made her a multi-millionaire – she was rated the 31st richest woman in Britain by the 2009 Sunday Times Rich List – surely she can take things easy now? Not at all. The road from working class Leeds to high class Manhattan may be long, but Taylor Bradford has not lost her work ethic along the way. ‘I do it because people who retire fade away and die,’ she answers with a dismissive shrug of her shoulders when asked why she doesn’t kick back and enjoy the money.
Storytelling is in the blood of this one-time journalist. It is what she is as well as what she does. ‘I have an ability, talent, whatever you want to call it, to tell stories,’ she explains over lunch in the Dorchester. Dressed in tailored powder blue trouser suit, the look is Upper East Side grand dame, the conversation? Pure addict – ink being the drug of choice.
‘I once said to someone in America that if I didn’t get a story out of my head, they would have to take me away in a straight jacket. It is a compulsion.’ She laughs, but it isn’t funny. Work is serious business for this one-woman industry. ‘I have worked from the age of 15, what am I going to do? Go out shopping? Have lunch with girlfriends?’
The process of writing a BTB blockbuster begins as it did 31 years ago with a yellow pad of paper. When a plot springs to mind she interrogates herself, reporter-style, teasing out every strand and inconsistency, until a workable outline emerges. In Playing the Game, she knew protagonist Annette Remmington would be involved in the art world and that the story would involve forgery and the unmasking of a secret. To tell more is to spoil a narrative as twisted as a DNA strand.
Explains the creator of Emma Harte: ‘With Annette I knew she harboured a dangerous secret, so I asked myself how is the secret going to come out? From that I realised she must become famous over night, because if she was famous for some time it would already have come out.’ BTB is giving a Masterclass in plotting.
As important as teasing out the narrative are names. ‘I spend a lot of time on them. I think they are very important’ she adds. ‘I thought of “Antoinette” and then thought that was too French and people would call her “Toni”‘ – she spits out the name, crinkling her nose – ‘so I thought of “Annette”.’ Once she had the name, she imagined the woman: ’39, not quite 40′, successful and respected, controlled and private.

Graham Greene said “character is plot”, meaning character is destiny.

At the core of all BTB’s work are relationships and how they interplay. With Playing the Game, from the tension created between Annette, her Svengali-like husband husband, Marius, and a younger rival springs the story. ‘Graham Greene said “character is plot”, meaning character is destiny,’ Taylor Bradford explains, her intense expression reflects the seriousness with which she takes her craft. Citing Dickens use of character to create story of David Copperfield, she adds: ‘The relationships that follow create the story.’
What also creates story in BTB novels are her feisty heroines. Not for Taylor Bradford are the milksop girls who populate much contemporary women’s fiction. ‘They just don’t interest me,’ she says. ‘I know people say I write about women who are rich, but that is not really true. I write about women who become successful.’
Given the independence of her heroines – and their unconventional approach to marriage (Woman of Substance Emma Harte exchanges lovers with rapidity) – it comes as a surprise to hear her say that a ‘supportive husband’ is an essential component to career success for women authors. As she says it I hear a generation of feminists cry out. But this traditional attitude is less surprising when one meets Bob, her husband and manager for over 40 years. His support has been a rock on which BTB has built a career.

You have to give up something if you are going to have a big career.

But not everything has fallen into BTB’s lap. Not that she feels sorry for herself – she gives short shrift to the ‘Because I’m Worth It’ mentality. ‘I read the other day about Emma Thompson saying you can’t have it all, and I don’t think you can,’ she observes. ‘You can have your husband and children and work, but you can’t have a social life. I don’t have children, because I had two miscarriages and never got pregnant again…’ she says this matter-of-fact. Self-pity is not in the BTB DNA. ‘I gave up my social life for years, but you have to give up something if you are going to have a big career.’
You also have to be willing to work hard. ‘You sit in a room and work hard,’ is the unglamorous summation of her working day. She is disciplined when writing, limiting socialising to once a week. ‘Somebody once said to me, and I have never forgotten it, that you can’t be a social butterfly and a bestselling novelist. That is right.’ Her eyes sparkle and she smiles before polishing off her last portion of roast beef, clearly feeling the hard work is part of the pleasure.

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Danuta Kean

Danuta Kean is books editor of Mslexia and a respected publishing expert and journalist. Her work appears regularly in national newspapers, including the Financial Times and Independent on Sunday. She is a regular speaker at festivals, interviewing authors and revealing the inner workings of a trade that seems opaque to many writers. Follow her on Twitter at @Danoosha.

10 thoughts on “INTERVIEW: What does it take to be a bestselling novelist? Barbara Taylor Bradford explains

  • Barbara Taylor Bradford is a brilliant storyteller and novelist. Ellen Dean, you have impressed me. I hope I can follow in these women’s footsteps!

  • Cindy May

    I think Ronnie Johnson makes a very good point about ebooks being set to hammer print. We can look in a comparable field, where I have some contacts. Ten years ago, VHS video dominated the market and DVD was a minority share, when DVD readers were pricy. When they came right down one Christmas, the DVD market went thru the roof and VHS disintegrated as a serious medium in a matter of two years.
    Sales went from 80% VHS to 5% VHS or less in the space of two Christmas times, so it was not even two years. I think that Agents/publishers do try to be their own worst enemy when they ain’t trying to be an author’s worst enemy. It is a pity because I like to hold a book in my hand (and when straight out of the carton they even have a nice “booky” smell. Also what happens with highly illustrated technical books with drawings etc. They do not seem to be good as ebooks yet. CM

  • Fascinating insight into a hardworking storysmith. I’ve never been drawn to BTB novels before, but her remark ‘character is destiny’ makes me want to give her a spin. Thanks Danoosha!

  • Ellen has given me something to think about. The contract with my current publisher ends in April and, although I’ve already sent the second book in the series to another publisher (one which already publishes books of a similar nature), I may have to take matters into my own hands, like Ellen. Thanks for that insight!

  • I think Barbara Taylor-Bradford is a brilliant writer, and has a wonderful imagination. I do, however, agree with Gaynor in as much as some of the mainstream publishers have many editors on hand to work on their books.
    I published my own novel in 2009 after setting up my own publishing company and I worked furiously to market it. I’m delighted to say that it became a number one Best Seller in Amazon’s top 100 paperback list in August 2010. Then I converted it to e-Book. A whole new ball game but worth the effort as my novel reached number one in Amazon’s top 100 Kindle list.
    Whether you are with a mainstream publisher or not, as an author you still have to market like crazy.

  • The publishing industry is killing printed material. The egos of the agents and publishers are putting a choke hold how books are getting into the hands of readers. New writers will be using digital media to get their work out and e-books will kill traditional print within the next 3 years.

  • I think this is a great interview with a great story teller. She’s not saying that hard work guarantees you success, but she is saying that without hard work, you can’t have success. Some good tips on plotting, too, and I hadn’t heard the Graham Greene ‘character is plot’. A very good reminder.

  • Danuta

    No one denies that the publishing world isn’t fair or that publishers fail to give much support to authors beyond launch. But if one doesn’t work hard then it won’t happen and one certainly will not sustain one’s career.
    Barbara Taylor Bradford has had a phenomenal career as a novelist (which is all that she is famous for), and it is an amazing fact that her first novel – A Woman of Substance – remains in print 30 years after it was published. In fact, a special anniversary edition topped the charts two years ago.
    Her continued success reflects the fact that she produces a book a year and goes on the road to promote the hell out of her books. Maybe other authors don’t achieve the same level of success, but of all those who sustain a career beyond their debuts work damned hard, not just to get the book written, but to make sure people read it and know it is available. It isn’t fair, but it is a fact of life these days, sadly.

  • I think this is disingenuous. We all know life is unfair, however hard you work and however good your work might be. If someone is famous for one thing, then they will have no trouble becoming famous for another thing (eg: writing). It’s infuriating for all genuine writers to see someone selling enormous numbers of books which haven’t even been written by the so-called author (all too often someone barely literate). It’s also very frustrating not to have proper support from a publisher when one is working hard to publicise one’s work. That is life!

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